DOC Service Dog Program Helps Vets
Maize, a sweet if understandably rambunctious Yellow Labrador puppy, happily squirms in the arms of Diana Palombo, a Counselor in training at Enfield Correctional Institution, a medium security prison.
“I love dogs. It’s been my dream to work in a prison and work with dogs,” says Palombo, a member of AFSCME Local 391, which represents nearly 2,000 correction employees in the northern part of the state.
Palombo, a criminal justice and psychology major in college, is living her dream. She and fellow Local 391 member Erin Darling, a veteran correctional officer who also went to school for psychology, are the Program Liaisons for the Prison Puppy Partnership Program that will place Maize and other lab puppies with disabled veterans.
Palombo and Darling work with prison inmates, some of whom haven’t seen a dog in 20 years, to socialize and train the puppies so they can be given to the vets as service dogs.
“This is the most positive thing I’ve seen in my eight years here,” Darling says. “We’re giving inmates valuable skills and we’re giving back to veterans who defended our country.”
Council 4 Executive Board member Steve Curran is a Correction Officer from AFSCME Local 1565, which
represents more than 2,000 correctional employees throughout the state. Two years ago, the Department of Correction assigned him to serve as Dog Program Coordinator.
A few years ago, it would be hard to imagine dog training as part of the curriculum at a Connecticut prison, but that’s precisely what’s happening at Enfield and other state prisons.
In addition to the Enfield program, DOC partners with WAG (We Adopt Greyhounds) at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville to rehabilitate retired racers into pets. And at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, DOC is collaborating with Dog Days Adoption Inc. on The Red Dog Project, which to date has saved more than 50 shelter dogs from euthanization by finding them “forever” homes.
Curran says the canines are having a positive and measurable impact. “The stress level in prison housing units has diminished,” Curran observes. “The mood has definitely improved.
The Enfield CI training program lasts approximately 12-14 months, typically with three puppies being phased in approximately every three months. Inmates who served in the military are given the first opportunity to be inmate puppy handlers. Local 391 members who are veterans are given first priority to work with the program.
Sheila O’Brien is the Director of External Relations for America’s VetDogs (AVD), a Long Island-based non-profit that provides training dogs for disabled veterans. Besides Connecticut, four other states are now home to AVD’s Prison Puppy Program.
“More than 50,000 veterans have come back severely wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” O’Brien says. “Their average age is 22 years old. They’ve been there for us and we have to be there for them. One way to do that is to provide service dogs to help them be independent.”
Darling and Palombo say the line staff at Enfield have been essential to creating and upholding policies and procedures associated with the puppy program – all while ensuring that facility operations continue to run smoothly and safely.“
The staff at Enfield CI has embraced the AVD mission,” Darling says. “Introducing three puppies into the facility has brought about many changes in the daily operations of our facility, and we have had to adapt our practices to reflect that.”
She adds, “We are all committed to making this partnership a successful one. Working as a team, we will do what we can to give each puppy the greatest opportunities we can to complete their training and become service dogs for deserving veterans.”
The puppy program at Enfield CI has additional benefits: It doesn’t cost Connecticut taxpayers a dime (thanks to AVD), and it significantly reduces the waiting time for disabled veterans to get their service dogs.Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman recently visited Enfield CI to see the training program in action as Maize and two other lab puppies (Sam and Wilson) followed the commands of inmates under the watchful eyes of DOC staff.
“I applaud Connecticut’s Correction Officers for their commitment to America’s VetDogs,” Wyman says. “Ensuring our returning military men and women have the support and resources they need to live productive, healthy lives is a priority—and it’s the right thing to do. Thanks to the professionalism and diligence of the Department of Correction, this service program runs safely and successfully, and is of tremendous benefit to our veterans.”
Curran chairs the Council 4’s Veterans Committee, which sponsors an annual Memorial Day weekend picnic for residents at the State Veterans Home in Rocky Hill. He sees a continuum between Council 4’s support of veterans and the work being done by his union brothers and sisters from Local 391.
“The puppy project is another way where our union members are making a difference for Connecticut veterans,”